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Al-Ja- what? Trump's former security advisor JD Gordon faces the press at the Oxford Union
In July an audience of "comfortably liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumpers" gathered to see the president get grilled via proxy. Peter Lawler was there to watch... and ask his own question
See the whole episode here.
'Al-Ja- what?' I can picture my very conservative parents saying.
My Dad is from very, very pre-hipster Brooklyn. He knew it waaaay before it was cool, when it was a nice, white place to grow up and you hitched a lift on the back of the tram-o-matic to spend a few pennies at Coney Island on rickety wooden roller coasters of a weekend. Or something like that. My mother is from somewhere deep in the 1940s and has just kept traveling, like some curious Kurt Vonnegut character, backwards in time throughout her life ever since. Last I checked she was somewhere deep in pre-universal suffrage and laughing and shaking her head at 'all those silly dreamers demanding equality.' I'd have to check but I think she's also been deferring her vote to my father's opinion for the same amount of time, single-handedly handing Trump Pennsylvania back in 2016.
I digress. A little.
I haven't actually told my parents I'm at an Al-Jazeera event, just in case they think Al-Jazeera is Arabic for 'Come with me, my brothers and sisters, let us go and conspire against suburban and rural, pretzel eating, sedentary, apostate America that worship at the altar of Starbucks and Kanye mwahahahahahaha.' (Of course it doesn't. Not even close. It means 'the island' symbolically linking to the network's justifiable claim to be the only independent news source in the Middle East). Of course my conservative friend from high school (you know the one you never knew was conservative because he was funny and arty and a lot of fun to hang out with) always called it Al-Gore-zeera so I don't know what to expect.
But my Mom and Pop and their entrenched conservatism are ever present in my mind as I sit down in the front row of Oxford Union as AJ's guest and make myself ready for an evening in the presence of someone as close to the Trump administration as I'm willing to get, JD Gordon, former security adviser to the Trump Presidential Campaign. I am at a recording of Al Jazeera's version of Hardball, 'Head to Head' hosted by Mehdi Hasan, a bruiser of an interviewer capable of landing the inquisitorial equivalent of right hooks with Russian probes and Upper cuts of Trump's casual racism to devastating effect.
It is clearly an audience of mostly comfortably liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumpers (I say that as a belligerently liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumper). We have come to watch Trump get grilled via proxy. If we can't have the orange-a-tan-in-chief himself, we'll take someone guilty by association, as I'm going to assume JD Gordon is, being one of the interviewees rounded up and questioned by the Mueller force in connection to
well let's face it probable and nefarious possible links to Russia and collusion charges.
But I can see why the ruthless but not un-shrewd Bannonite Team Trump would have hired Gordon back in 2016. He's a nice guy. He is the nice face of the Ugly American that Trump embodies – not accidentally crashing around the China cabinet but intentionally, childishly kicking over everything in the cabinet and kicking the glass in for good measure. If Trump is to the second decade of this century what Nixon was in the '70s (and just so we remember, Hunter S Thompson wrote after Nixon died that the world was a better place without him) except worse, JD Gordon is its less offensive charm offensive. A former Navy Commander, he is brisk but not brash, bordering on soft spoken, while maintaining a sense of precise, military assertiveness.
As an AJ event rookie, I was told that this episode was fairly tame; I didn't think so but then I do marvel in admiration at the gusto of British journalists compared to their powder puff American counterparts tossing each other into the fanged mouth of the sabre-toothed Huckabee Sanders over and over again, and at American audiences who tend to inhale sharply at what British audiences might simply describe as a 'spirited exchange'. Apparently Hasan later told one of his colleagues that he would have loved to have driven at Gordon harder, but he was 'just too nice.'
And there is a corn-fed innocence about his ability to stick to the party line and defend Trump or at least refuse to criticise him in any way shape or form even when he clearly did not agree with things he had done or said. JD Gordon and I both grew up in New Jersey, the shoreline of which Trump bled dry in the '80s. Gordon does have that same suburban 7-11 highways-and-strip-malls sort of charm about him, like he would mow your lawn because, well heck it was just another half an acre next to his anyway.
Make no mistake. I did not admire this innocent appearance and charm. It is dangerous in the kind of conservatism that seems to be the Right's currency of exchange in today's political discourse. If we're charmed by people like this, then maybe Trump's vile, destructive, cynical straight talkin' rhetorical doggerel isn't so bad, right?
It is that bad.
And so much worse.
And I must confess also, JD Gordon did not make Trump look any better in his responses. When confronted by Hasan's masterfully woven portrait and narrative – and Hasan really is a master interviewer – on anything from Trump's treason, to his dishonesty to his racism, Gordon stuck to a solid stock answer with little variation: this is what the American people voted for. His defence was fairly clumsy. On the racism charge, Gordon's main defence seemed to be that Trump's wives were all foreigners and he had praised foreign dictators, so he can't be racist.
If Gordon was the smiling, pragmatic, excusing, apologising face of the Trumpernaut to an audience hoping for a pantomime villain spitting lies, incoherent nonsense and uncritical dogma, then Marc Porter, president of Republicans Overseas France and balancing Al Jazeera's panel for the night, did not disappoint. Like a braying jackal, howling as though he'd been viscerally wounded, he cried and shrieked at the inconvenience of facts and the way in which dozens of damning quotes said by the king of Twit had been taken out of context, but when called upon, produced nothing of substance to offer as a defence except the unfairness of using the president's own words against him, which felt as insubstantial as so much cypsela carried away on a late summer breeze. At one point, Porter persistently claimed that Trump's campaign did collude but that, singing the most popular tune of Fox and Friends, it didn't matter because collusion was not a crime (I mean treason is but why split hairs?). At another, he hit back against claims that Trump was a sexual predator by firing back "Clinton! Clinton! Clinton!" or something to that effect, neglecting the pesky difference between the words 'affair' and 'assault'.
When it comes round to my opportunity to ask a question, I think again of my parents and rightly or wrongly, note first to JD Gordon and the audience that dear old Mom and Dad voted for Trump and they do care how many lies he tells (not verifiably true, I'm not sure my Dad gives a toss).
But I ask anyway, "Why should the world believe in America anymore?"
His answer ranks among the greatest of logic denials I have ever heard from an avowed conservative. Ever. And that's saying something. That's a list that includes the following:
Look, if a human were raised amongst wolves he would not become a socialist.
You want to save the whales, yet you don't mind killing babies?!
'But Dad, statistically, Trump tells a lie every five minutes…'
'Yeah? Well Hillary tells a lie every two minutes!'
I don't know how or why right wingers seem to have this ability to veer so far off topic so quickly and to commit so great a logical fallacy with such wanton abandon, but loath to buck the trend, in response to why the world should still believe in America, Trump's former security advisor began by thanking my parents for their support (I knew it was a mistake flagging that. Damn!) and then said: "Well Pete, all I can say is this is what the American people asked for and this is what they wanted. Get used to more reality TV stars holding high office because it's going to happen more and more."
And… that was it.
I stared, dumbfounded, unable to pick my metaphorical jaw up off the floor, knocked by the swift left hook of irrelevance as Hasan moved on to the next question. How can a response be so wrong and so ominous at the same time? Who does JD Gordon have waiting to take office after Trump, the Kardashians? So, what you're saying is that the world shouldn't believe in 'Merica anymore?
It was a riveting evening. I enjoyed seeing Hasan deftly trap Gordon over and over again, but it did feel a little unequal after a while. It's easy enough for Al Jazeera to hold the first estate to account and assemble a cathedral full of anti-Trump expats and left-leaning Guardianistas.
It is infinitely more challenging to dethrone the post-truth narrative that looms large over America right now. It won't be done by carping about the popular vote, but I still think it can be done by people like Bernie Sanders and his ideological successors like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who provide solid hope, instead of a bleak picture full of fear and vitriol. But it won't be done until we successfully challenge stupid, in all its levels, including the weird dark, Grimm's fairytale in which Trump rules as buffoonish Goblin King. Until then, we continue to be stunned by incoherence, into incoherence. You have to laugh, really.